When Allen Sessoms, president of the University of the District of Columbia, began implementing his vision last year for a new and improved institution of higher learning, that also apparently meant presenting an updated pictorial of the historically Black campus.
Since then, full-page advertisements detailing Sessoms’ vision have been published in major newspapers including the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, and another smaller ad which has appeared in a recent supplement of the Post, depicts the school as a utopia of sorts with White students recreating on a waterfront.
However, this latest ad has created waves among some of the school’s faculty who contend it misrepresents UDC’s historical aspect. According to professors, Paul Bachman and Elsie Williams, the ad implies an attempt to change the complexion of the 39-year-old facility.
“UDC is a right of the people of this city that was given to them by the federal government,” Bachman said. ”It looks like they’re trying to change its complexion,” he said, referring to the ad, “and that’s not the mission of the school. It’s only the federal government that can change that.”
Bachman claims Sessoms also sought to have Delaware State University, where he served a brief stint as president, give up its historical Blackness.
“UDC is one of 58 colleges that were chartered under the first Morrill Act (also known as the land grant act),” Bachman said, “so the university is not just that set of buildings up there on Connecticut Avenue, it’s a land-grant institute that was given to the residents of the District of Columbia who happened to be majority African American.”
Williams said she was disappointed in the advertisement’s depiction of UDC students as White.
“I understand that there are several of those ads around and we would call them an attempt to re-brand the university,” Williams said.
UDC was chartered in 1974 and its mission describes it as an urban institution of higher education with an open admissions policy.
During a January 2009 student forum, Sessoms presented his vision which stated that UDC, with Fiscal Year 2008 revenue sources that exceeded $1.8 million, was on course for becoming a “diverse” university.
Sessoms also alluded to the school’s slant toward autonomy, noting that it was the “norm and best policy” for public universities.
UDC spokesman Alan Etter, who spoke on behalf of Sessoms, said the advertisement in question has nothing to do with White students in a lake atmosphere. Rather, he described the ad scene as a depiction of “people near the Key Bridge in Georgetown – discussing interesting programs available at UDC, the David A. Clarke School of Law, and the Community College of D.C.”
He said there is no truth to claims that the university’s status as a historically Black school lies under threat. The university is endeavoring “in a very big way to attract all demographics,” Etter said, adding that as the District’s only public university and the only urban land grant university in the nation, its officials are obligated to reach out to every segment of society to attract students.
“This institution has never really worked to diversify the demographics here,” said Etter, in his acknowledgment that UDC is moving in a new direction.
Meanwhile, Williams said “other issues” at the university, which in January graduated the first class of its newly-implemented Community College of the District of Columbia, are escalating to the point that there also appears to be an effort to “re-direct” its historically Black college status.
“And we’re very concerned about this,” Williams said.
She added that some of UDC’s alumni complained to the Board of Trustees that Sessoms had removed historic Black college memorabilia from the bookstore. “But since then, I understand he has put it back,” Williams said.
Said Williams: “We’ve had seven Black presidents and at one time their portraits were hanging in the foyer [of one of the main campus buildings]. Then they were moved to the board room,” she said, explaining that “Sessoms took it upon himself to move the portraits without consulting the board,” and had them replaced with modern abstract art.
That action was followed by Sessoms’ ban of the Negro national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during the winter graduation, Williams said.
“The program, itself, did not list the song but the lyrics were there,” Williams said. “I became curious and learned that at Delaware State, he had forbade the singing of the anthem.”
According to Willliams, Sessoms is under pressure to raise money for the university. She said that as a result, he’s “probably” made all the changes to draw financial support from White corporate elites.